The world needs clean energy. That’s an irrefutable fact.
Our energy needs aren’t going to decrease anytime soon. The UN estimates that the world population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050, greatly straining the availability of many resources that we rely on. More importantly, more people are being lifted out of poverty, meaning that they will live more energy-intensive lives. In the last 20 years, the amount of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 43 percent to 21 percent. By 2050, the world’s energy needs could be double what they are now.
Furthermore, we need an energy source that doesn’t pollute or emit greenhouse gasses. According to the American Lung Association, 13,000 people die annually from air pollution caused by coal in the U.S. alone. And that number does consider the potential health risks that could arise from global climate change.
Rising sea levels, droughts, desertification, severe storms and flooding caused by climate change could kill 100 million people by 2030, according to a report commissioned by 20 governments.
People in developed countries aren’t going to give up their standard of living and people in developing countries aren’t going to give up their aspirations for a higher standard of living. Thus, the world needs a clean energy source that can still provide for increased energy needs.
Wind and solar are a big part of the solution, but they cannot provide all of our energy anytime soon. The problem is that the wind is not always blowing and the sun is not always shining. Indeed, the best candidate is nuclear energy. Nuclear power emits virtually no air pollution or greenhouse gasses. It’s also incredibly efficient. One ton of uranium can produce as much energy as 16,000 tons of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil.
Nuclear energy is already cost-competitive with fossil fuels according to an EIA report. If measures to dissuade the carbon emissions were introduced (i.e. carbon taxes), nuclear energy would be at a cost advantage. While renewables are becoming cheaper, they will not be cost-competitive until at least 2025.
One of the biggest concerns about nuclear power is the possibility of accidents like those that occurred at Chernobyl or Fukushima.
First, it is important to put these disasters in perspective. The World Health Organization estimates that 56 people were killed and 4,000 people had their lives shortened after Chernobyl. While this is tragic, it pales in comparison to the deaths caused by fossil fuels. In fact, a recent paper in Environmental Science and Technology found that 1.8 million lives have been saved by nuclear power due to the reduction in fossil fuels.
Nuclear waste is another hazard. However, an article in Scientific American notes that coal ash is actually more radioactive than nuclear waste due to the fact that coal contains uranium and thorium.
Radiation scares people because it’s invisible and mysterious. However, radiation is all around us. It comes from air, rocks, food, and even space. Since radiation increases at higher altitudes, we are all receiving above average radiation doses by virtue of going to CC. Furthermore, flying across America and back gives you a dose of radiation equivalent to what residents near Three Mile Island received after the famed incident there.
The final nail in the coffin for the anti-nuclear lobby is the fact that the problems with nuclear power that they raise are problems easily addressed in new reactor designs. The Fukushima reactor, for example, was commissioned in 1971. New technology can solve the problems with older reactors like Fukushima.
Generation IV nuclear reactors are passively safe, proliferation resistant, and create less waste. The waste they do create is not nearly as long-lived.
In my opinion, the best Gen IV design is the lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR). Current reactors use water as a coolant, requiring more water to be pumped as the water evaporates. A fundamental fault at Fukushima was that water was no longer pumped in after power was lost and the reactor overheated. On the other hand, the LFR uses molten lead as a coolant. Since lead evaporates at a temperature far higher than what the reactor burns at, new coolant doesn’t need to be pumped in. Thus, it avoids the dangers that led to Fukushima. Furthermore, lead is a good shield against radiation and provides an extra layer of defense. If the reactor were breached, the low freezing point of lead would cause the coolant to solidify, entombing the reactor.
Like all fast reactors, LFRs also avoid the problem of meltdowns because they have a strong negative temperature coefficient. This means that the reaction slows down as the temperature rises unduly. Indeed, scientists played out the worst-case scenarios on the Integral Fast Reactor and no meltdown occurred.
LFRs are sustainable since their fuel can be bred from depleted uranium and thorium, which are very abundant. Indeed, one Stanford study found that there is enough fuel for fast reactors to last billions of years.
The final compelling safety feature is the fact that its high efficiency means that the LFR does not require refueling. As a result, the reactor can be stuck in the ground for a decade or so and when the fuel runs out the entire core can be replaced. This simplifies the design and removes the need for human interference. This is great news since human error and overly complex designs were major factors behind previous nuclear accidents.
LFRs can also use nuclear waste as fuel, eliminating the waste problem. They also operate in a closed circuit, meaning that any waste produced is recycled, thus preventing the creation of new waste.
This closed circuit means any plutonium created will be recycled, reducing the risk of proliferation. Also, since the fuel is sealed in the core and the operators never work with it directly, the risk of proliferation is lessened even further.
LFRs are not a new technology. The Soviets used them on submarines in the 1970s. They are a proven solution that can be implemented in the near future.
Nuclear energy might not be a perfect option, but no widely available energy source is. Nuclear energy must be compared to sources like coal in a logical assessment of its impacts on society, and when one completes such an assessment it is clear that nuclear energy is the best option. We can live the lives of luxury we want to without destroying the planet, but in order to do so, we must let the nuclear renaissance take flight.